As a rom com, it’s tough for D. C. Jackson’s My Romantic History to stand out from all other rom coms, but its biggest strength is way a the small cast weaves together all the storylines.
So, Live Theatre embraces the rom com. This is frequently maligned in the arts world for pandering the audience figures, but that’s a little unfair – why should a new writing theatre shy away from a format just because it’s popular? There is, however, a challenge with this format: rom coms, along with zombie flicks, are the two most over-used tropes in performing arts. Every kind of rom com has been done before. And every kind of zombie flick. And every kind of rom com with zombies (yes, really). That’s fine if you’re prepared to settle for a crowd-pleaser where the audience works out the entire plot ten minutes into Act One, but if you want to bring a fresh original take to this format, it’s very difficult to find one that hasn’t already been used several times already. It’s happened, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised (both rom com and zombies), but those exceptions far and few between. In short, the rom com isn’t the walk in the park you might think – certainly not to an audience who expects cutting edge writing.
Stepping up to the challenge is D. C. Jackson best know for Fresh Meat, and if you’re hoping for something as excruciating as that TV series, you won’t be disappointed. Switching students at university to thirtysomethings in the workplace, we follow the story of Tom and Amy, work colleagues who start a relationship after hooking up after Friday Night drinks. Although “relationship” is a debatable term – a less generous description would be a one-night stand which neither of them get round to calling off. And, as Tom observes, the problem with workplace flings is that the age-old excuse of telling your flingee you’re so busy in your job doesn’t work any more. The root problem, as suggested by the title, is that both Amy and Tom are both comparing each other to the long-lost loves of their lives. Although it doesn’t help that they’re viewing their teenage memories through rose-tinted glasses. In fact, unreliable memories is a key theme of this play.
Most notable about their romantic histories – in common with any other kind of history – their not-quite-consistent narratives on what happened. Depending on whether you believe Tom’s story from Act One or Amy’s story from Act Two, either: Amy was coming on to Tom, who went along with it, and it only kept going because he couldn’t find a way to get her to dump him; or: Tom was coming on to Amy, who went along with it, and it only kept going because she got tired of Sasha hinting she couldn’t hold down a relationship. I liked the way this was done – some scenes were acted out almost identically except for one small difference that fundamentally changes the meaning. I also liked the two different versions of Sasha. In Amy’s world, she’s a mildly annoying hippy who keeps pestering her to see her samba drumming. In Tom’s world, it’s like she wants him to come to the Samba drumming because she’s got the hots for him too. Again, it’s subtle, but it highlights how differently Tom and Amy see things. (Although I’m minded to believe Amy on this one. Sorry Tom.)
It’s not just Tom, Amy and Sasha in the story. The cast of three play a whole variety of supporting characters, and it’s done very well. This is something Max Roberts does a lot of in his directing and he’s been consistently good, but this was him at his best. With no time for anything more than the most basic change of accessories, the changes of characters almost always come down to tone of voice and body language, but there’s never any doubt who’s playing who. One scene that was an absolute gem was Sasha and Amy transformed into Tom’s mother and elderly grandmother. Admittedly this job becomes a lot easier when the story isn’t too taxing, but Jackson has share the credit with his script deploying the multitude of characters so tightly through the story.
But the one thing the play doesn’t really pull off is one thing I knew would be difficult: getting this rom com to stand out from all the other rom coms. Virtually every plot development in the story crops up in other rom coms – that’s not a criticism of this play being derivative as such; just that there’s so many gazillions out there it’s practically impossible to avoid it. But I do wonder if the direction the play went in the third act was the best choice. The twist was good, so I won’t spoil it by saying what it was, but that tied the story into one of the most overdone endings in rom com. Don’t get me wrong, the ending was handled well, but I can’t help feeling that the story could have done better with a different twist and different denouement.
However, at the end of the day you should judge this for what it’s meant to be. Few people expect rom coms to be full of shocks and surprises so it’s not really fair to suddenly expect this now. It’s not so much the story that stands out here – you get what you come for, no more, no less – but the clever way that the multiple past stories and presents stories are woven together so tightly. If you can’t stand rom coms, this one won’t change your mind, but as long as you know what you’re getting, you’ll like how it’s been done. Max Roberts may no longer be Artistic Director, but his first p[lay as Emeritus Director shows there’s plenty of things he’s yet to offer.
My Romantic History continues until the 12th May at Live Theatre.
(Footnote: I saw a “preview” performance rather than a run on or after press night, but, as far as I could tell, nothing went wrong in the preview that affected the performance.)